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When people don’t achieve a goal, it’s not often because they don’t know how. Running a marathon or starting a photography blog isn’t like flying to Mars; the steps involved are fairly well-established. The real issue, for many, is a lack of motivation — and researchers have found a new way to generate it.
According to a recent study led by researchers from the U.K. and Australia, people can tap into deep wellsprings of motivation with a therapy called Functional Imagery Training, or FIT. FIT involves visualizing what it would be like to achieve your goals in deep, sensory detail.
Often, a FIT session starts somewhere else entirely, though. Therapists might open by asking patients to deeply visualize … a lemon. You can do this too. Imagine looking at a lemon, touching it, juicing it, drinking its juice, and (why not?) getting its juice squirted in your eyes.
That eye part kind of stings, doesn’t it? Your imagination is intimately linked with your five senses. That’s why the central part of FIT, visualizing attaining a goal, is so powerful. Of course, if you want this to work, you can’t just imagine that “it’d be so cool” to meet your goal. Instead, therapists encourage patients to delve deep, visualizing specific, joyful experiences they’ll have once their goals are attained. Then, they help patients flesh these scenes out with sensory details: sights, smells, sounds, flavors, and textures.
The study was designed to assess FIT’s effectiveness as a weight-loss strategy. The 141 participants, who were all trying to lose weight and had BMIs of 25 or higher, were randomly sorted into two groups. One group received FIT therapy; the other received Motivational Interviewing therapy (MI), a more traditional treatment that urges people to articulate their goals but places less emphasis on visualization and sensory detail. Both therapy programs began with an hour-long, in-person session, followed by a series of supporting phone calls that tapered off slowly over the course of six months.
Since the participants were all trying to lose weight, those in the FIT group visualized performing activities that were too strenuous or otherwise challenging at their current size. One participant imagined fitting into a dress she loved at her daughter’s graduation — it made her goal of staying healthy enough to support her daughter into something tangible.
The results were unambiguous: FIT was more effective. People in the FIT group lost roughly six times more weight than their counterparts who did MI — an average of 8.8 pounds (4 kilograms), compared to the MI group’s 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms). This is especially interesting because neither group received any guidance on their diet or exercise regimen.
The FIT group also kept losing weight after the study ended. When researchers checked in with participants six months after their last FIT or MI phone call, the FIT group had lost an average of 3.7 additional pounds (1.7 kilograms). The MI group lost no additional weight, on average.
Researchers are still trying to figure out why FIT worked so much better than MI — and what other goals it can help people achieve. (FIT techniques aren’t specific to weight loss.) So far, the theory goes that part of FIT’s strength is that it empowers patients to help themselves. You don’t need a therapist to re-access the vision you come up with in a FIT session; you just need your imagination. So FIT, as the proverb goes, may be like teaching a man to fish, whereas MI is more like giving a man a fish. The power is in you — you just have to visualize it.